Most beaches in Galveston County will be closed during the long Independence Day weekend against a background of rising COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations.
Following other Texas governments that recently limited or closed access to the coast during the Fourth of July holiday, Galveston County and the city of Galveston announced closures Wednesday.
The orders were meant to dissuade visitors who have been crowding island and Bolivar Peninsula beaches this summer, but local business owners weren’t convinced the move will have the intended effect.
While this beach closure will only last for the weekend, the city is planning to implement less restrictive rules to manage crowds, parking and access points through Sept. 30, Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough said.
Yarbrough isn’t planning on issuing those orders until next week, he said.
Yarbrough expects that order to include no-parking rules for the north side of Seawall Boulevard and limiting some access points, he said.
The city of Galveston plans to close beaches from 5 a.m. Friday to 12:01 a.m. Monday, according to the mayoral order.
No one may walk on or drive along the 30 or so miles of sand from East Beach to the San Luis Pass, including the beach at Boddeker Road, according to the order.
Jamaica Beach, an independent city with jurisdiction over a short stretch on the island’s West End, will also close its beaches during the same time frame, according to a late announcement from the city.
The decision follows advice from the Galveston County Health District, according to the announcement. The city is also prohibiting parking south of Henry Morgan Road this weekend, according to the announcement.
In addition, people in Galveston won’t be allowed to picnic or place grills, coolers or chairs on the north and south sides of the seawall and can’t pause on the seawall for more than five minutes, although they can still walk, jog, bicycle or skateboard, according to the order.
People can’t park on either side of Seawall Boulevard or on the beach adjoining Boddeker Road, according to the order.
Yarbrough said he hoped the order would discourage many people from coming to Galveston.
“I have no qualms or second thoughts,” Yarbrough said. “It’s the right thing to do for public health.”
About two hours after the city announced its closure, Galveston County Judge Mark Henry’s office announced beaches on Bolivar Peninsula would close. Henry’s office said the Bolivar closure was a direct result of the city closing its beaches, which could cause an increase in the number of people going to county-managed beaches on the peninsula.
Henry ordered the closure on the advice of Galveston County Local Health Authority Dr. Philip Keiser, officials said.
The Bolivar beach closure will be during the same time frame as the city of Galveston’s.
Galveston Police Department officers, city marshals and lifeguards with the Galveston Island Beach Patrol will work to ensure people follow the rules, according to the city.
Because it has more staff, beach patrol is in a much better position to manage the closure than during the first pandemic-induced beach closure three months ago, Chief Peter Davis said.
“It’s the difference between having 15 and 100 people,” he said.
Beach patrol will staff guard towers to ensure people don’t walk on the beach. The patrol will have six trucks — two in the morning and four in the afternoon — patrolling West End beaches, Davis said.
The guards are still standing ready for water rescues, he said.
“We still want to be ready for if things happen, and the water’s still pretty rough right now,” Davis said.
While officials hope the closure will keep people away and safe, business owners aren’t convinced it will, and they worry the decision mostly will hurt sales at a time when revenues already are down.
When people hear the news, they’ll cancel their hotel reservations, said Willis Gandhi, president of the Galveston Hotel & Lodging Association. He owns island properties such as Best Western Plus, 8502 Seawall Blvd.
“We tried to stop it,” Gandhi said.
People have been practicing social distancing on the beach and Gandhi isn’t sure why the Fourth of July would be any different, he said.
Restaurants were expecting good sales this weekend for the holiday, said James Clark, president of the Galveston Restaurant Association. Clark also is director of operations and managing partner at Mosquito Cafe, 628 14th St.
“The restaurant association members are disappointed we won’t have our typical stellar holiday weekend sales, but we understand the importance of keeping public safety the top priority,” Clark said.
It’s frustrating to have regulations constantly changing, said Dennis Byrd, who owns The Spot, 3204 Seawall Blvd., and a DoubleTree by Hilton Galveston Beach, 1702 Seawall Blvd.
“I don’t understand the on-and-off switch,” Byrd said.
He understands the intent, but there’s no knowing what the reality will be, he said.
“We have found previously when the beaches were closed it did not discourage the visitors from coming,” Byrd said. “Then the visitors had much less space to congregate.”
The Spot, one of several businesses Byrd operates in the 3200 block of Seawall Boulevard, will probably have extra people managing parking lots in expectation of visitors who aren’t restaurant guests trying to park there, he said.
The closure will hurt business, said Johnny Smecca, a principal in the Galveston Restaurant Group, which owns seawall locations, including Papa’s Pizza, 4400 Seawall Blvd., and Mario’s Seawall Italian Restaurant, 628 Seawall Blvd.
“This is death by a thousand slices,” Smecca said. “Every day there’s a new cut.”
People aren’t getting sick from going to the beach and they’re not getting sick at his restaurants, he said.
“I don’t know what they’re doing when they leave the beach, but they’re not getting it on the beach,” Smecca said.
A battle over beach closures ensued earlier in the pandemic.
The city closed beaches March 29, only reopening them with limited hours April 27, and the county had closed Bolivar beaches for the Easter weekend.
But in late April, Gov. Greg Abbott had ordered all state beaches open by May 1, throwing out city officials’ slow reopening plan.
Yarbrough last week said the city wasn’t talking about closing the beaches, but officials didn’t think they had the authority to do so, he said.
The city this week has been in conversations with the Texas General Land Office, which regulates state beaches, and the land office has given approval for the closures, Yarbrough said.
Galveston isn’t the first to make the move this week. Nueces County and Corpus Christi closed beach access points Tuesday for the busy Fourth of July holiday weekend.
The land office had approved closures for these local governments, as well as the city of Galveston’s, spokeswoman Karina Erickson said.
Local governments can close beaches for public safety issues, and the land office is advising local officials to make decisions specific to the local public health situation, she said.